Would you wear a plaster grown from fungus? US-based bioengineer Aakriti Jain and Parisian industrial designer Guillian Graves think so. They also want think you should grow it yourself in a tabletop “microfactory”.
“Instead of throwing your compost in the trash, you would place it in the device so the SCOBY culture can feed on it,” Jain, currently interning at Harvard Medical School, tells WIRED.co.uk.
SCOBY stands for Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast, a common combination used to ferment drinks. In Jain and Grave’s proposed microfactory — called a Growduce — the SCOBY/compost combination would produce layers of leathery cellulose — cellulose that can be grown into any shape using moulds. The cellulose can be customised using different colourings or materials, or in the case of the plaster, some soothing aloe vera can be added.
“We envision something like a coffee maker or toaster in your kitchen,” says Jain. “Our microfactory would be a part of the future home.”
Graves is cofounder of Enzyme and Co, a collective of designers and scientists based in a Parisian biohackspace and focussing on creating “efficient and sustainable products using biology as an inspiration”. After designing biomimetic kettle Nautile with another bioengineer a few years ago, he says: “we logically moved to another approach: using living systems as a powerful and sustainable technology.” All his work has since focussed on addressing the problems facing our future — food and energy shortages, being central.
Growduce comes from this same place. Although the pair wanted to make something desirable and beautiful, it’s also incredibly practical from a sustainability perspective. This is one of the reasons they are beginning their studies — the microfactory is still theoretical, and everything has so far been grown outside of the Growduce — with plasters.
On the biological side bacterial cellulose is beneficial for scrapes and burns. However, there is also a huge amount of excess plastic and packaging that goes into storing a plaster. “Not to mention transportation costs, industrial packaging costs, and more,” says Jain. “All of this has a significant negative impact on the environment. While this is a small application it’s a path to a future where we can try to reduce such immense environmental costs for everyday and seemingly harmless items.”
There might be something of an obstacle, despite the scientific grounding behind it, in using a bacteria-derived plaster to cover a wound though. “The consumer obstacles may be greater than the scientific ones,” says Jain. “We need to get more comfortable with the idea of bacteria as something that is natural and good. In recent decades, we have become more concerned with cleanliness. We are used to products made of plastics, woods or metals, but using materials and objects produced from bioproduction — which may have unusual smells — invite us to rethink the way the user will live with the product.
“Growduce offers an unconventional way of thinking about everyday products — one that comes from seemingly gross and slimy bacteria, as opposed to chemical processing. This shift in thinking will definitely take time!”
The pair hope the personalisation aspects of Growduce will help ease people through this transition. Products can be tailored and patterned in any way — though they are still experimenting with the different effects different organic waste products create, including egg shells, bones, fats. Other, more familiar materials can also be integrated if need be, such as cotton or fabric.
Once the public gets over the fact their first aid kit or objets d’art are grown and not made, there’s also the issue of time. It takes around two weeks for the cellulose to grow to a useable size, and two days for it to dry (though an oven could be used to speed things up). “We understand this is a hurdle,” says Jain. “We are discussing having compartments so that one part is always growing — the start up will take some time, but afterwards there will be a continuous replenishment of your cellulose.” The actual growth process has also not yet been finetuned. Graves and Jain want to ensure the SCOBY will work on any compost.
Finally, there is no standardised process for creating moulds, though the pair have toyed with the idea of 3D printing them.
3D printing is of course a natural competitor in the space, and it uses polymers to print objects that will look and feel far more familiar. It is, however, not particularly cost-efficient or environmentally friendly, points Jain.
“Bacteria are able to produce energy, generate light, recycle waste, filter air and water, and allow us to grow objects — [all things] 3D printing can’t offer,” says Graves. “The opportunities are huge. But for now, we need to show to people all those exciting opportunities through the prism of industrial, critical or speculative projects. To do that, we (designers, biologists, bioengineers) need to invent a new experience of biology, taking into account our cultures, imagination and ethics.”
For now, Graves and Jain are focussing on building the first Growduce prototype and an accompanying app that will update users on pH and temperature readings, with a plan to launch the plasters and other products later this year. But in the long run, their horizons are much greater: heralding in the era of the “Natural Revolution”. “A kind of a parallel to the industrial revolution,” says Jain.